Mask hysteria: Germany denies export ban despite blocking Swiss-bound medical supplies

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday denied putting in place an export ban on medical supplies, despite a Swiss-bound truck being stopped by customs officials. The Swiss government has however said it is prepared and has a large stock of protective equipment.

Mask hysteria: Germany denies export ban despite blocking Swiss-bound medical supplies

As reported by The Local Switzerland on Monday, March 9th, a truck containing approximately 240,000 protective masks was stopped by German customs before it could cross the border into Switzerland. 

There have been widespread media reports that Germany, along with other European countries such as France, have put in place restrictions on the export of medical supplies.

READ ALSO: Germany bans exports of gloves and masks over coronavirus

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has however denied this, saying “there is no export ban. We just want to make sure the medical materials are in the right hands”. 

On Wednesday, another shipment – this time of surgical gloves which had been produced in China but were destined for Switzerland – was stopped in Germany. 

As reported in the Tages Anzeiger, the Swiss Economics Department said it was one of many shipments that had been detained in Germany. Another shipment was detained on Wednesday, this time from Italy. 

The situation is particularly severe for Switzerland as the country, unlike neighbours France and Germany, produces very little protective gear. 

Despite the dispute, the Swiss government has indicated that it has a significant stockpile of medical equipment – including more than one mask for every Swiss resident. 

Avoiding 'mask hysteria'

Health officials have frequently told the general public that healthy people should not wear masks and to refrain from purchasing them as they make it more difficult for sick people and medical professionals to access them. 

According to the WHO, around 80 percent of people who contract the new coronavirus recover without needing special treatment.

Around one out of every six people who gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing.

Some 3.4 percent of cases are fatal, according to the latest WHO figures. Older people and those with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness.

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Reader question: What happens if I don’t buy Swiss health insurance?

People who are rarely ill may prefer not to purchase Switzerland’s obligatory basic health policy, and instead pay out of pocket for any medical costs they incur. But is this allowed?

Reader question: What happens if I don't buy Swiss health insurance?

Say you are a healthy young(ish) person who never, or very rarely, goes to a doctor. You may think that paying several hundred francs a month for your health insurance is an unnecessary and — depending on your financial situation — extravagant expenditure.

You’d rather put aside a bit of money each month just in case you ever need to seek medical help, and pay your bill from that stash.

While this may seem like a reasonable idea and is, in fact, common in countries like the United States, it won’t fly in Switzerland.

As you already know if you live in the country, or should know if you are about to move here, the basic health insurance coverage (KVG in German and LaMal in French and Italian) are compulsory in Switzerland for all permanent residents regardless of their nationality or health status. (There are some exemptions from this rule, though — see below).

Without a health insurance policy, you will not only be refused medical care other than for vital emergencies, but you will also not be able to register at your commune of residence, rent an apartment, get employment, and be denied many other services as well.

This is what you should know (if you don’t already)

As soon as you settle in Switzerland, you will receive a letter from your canton telling you to purchase, within three months of your arrival, a health insurance policy for you and all the members of your family from one of the dozens of approved providers

After you do so, you must send the authorities a copy of your policy to prove that you have one. All that is required is the KVG / LaMal; a supplemental policy is optional, and you don’t have to provide a copy of it.

It doesn’t matter to the authorities whether you have a ‘regular’ plan or have taken out a cheaper policy like a family doctor model or the Telmed alternative.

What counts is that you have an approved and accepted policy.

READ MORE: How much does health insurance cost in Switzerland

What happens if you don’t?

This means you are breaking the law. And don’t expect to stay under the radar because you never get ill or go to a doctor.

Sooner or later (probably sooner, given the Swiss organisational skills), your non-compliance will be discovered.

If you don’t provide proof of being insured after the three-month period is over, the next step depends on your canton of residence.

Some will ‘play nice’ and send you a reminder by a registered letter. Others won’t.

In both cases, the outcome is the same: authorities will purchase a policy for you and send you the bill. The disadvantage of this ‘forced’ policy is that you will forego the choice of cheaper companies and plans.

As we mentioned above, if you still refuse to pay health insurance, you won’t be able to do very much and you will be denied services. 

Why can’t you opt to ‘pay-as-you-go’ rather than take out an insurance?

As mentioned, healthcare policy is compulsory, and you can’t argue with the law.

But there is another point as well.

Switzerland’s scheme is based on the principle of solidarity, the extent of which is rare in other nations’ health insurance systems.

Rather than applying an individual approach to healthcare insurance, Switzerland’s system is based on the idea that all insured people form a group.

You can think of this system in terms of a huge pot to which each resident of Switzerland makes a contribution (that is, premium payments), so that in an emergency there are enough resources available to give someone the help they need when they need it.

However, this system will only work if everyone plays a part in it.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How the Swiss health insurance system is based on solidarity

Who is exempted from the healthcare insurance rule?

You are not required to take out Swiss insurance if:

  • You are retired and get a pension exclusively in an EU or EFTA state
  • You are a cross-border worker with healthcare policy in a EU or EFTA state
  • You are a foreign student and have comparable insurance from your country
  • You work for international organisations or are a diplomat

All others must buy an insurance policy.